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Tim James: Sampling the Cape’s “Orange Wines”

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And now for something completely different.

A tasting – organised by Angela Lloyd with reportedly enthusiastic cooperation from producers – of 29 local white wines with a significant “skin-contact” component was both illuminating and complicating. Would you have guessed there were that many around, for a start? It showed the great diversity of style, technique and quality that the category encompasses, but raised lots of questions. Some of the latter were related to the intentions and practices of the producers, others to the categories that the Wine and Spirits Board now allows for such non-traditional winemaking approaches.

And immediately I’m in trouble, because some of the winemakers will insist that lengthy skin-contact for white wines IS the genuinely traditional approach, merely forgotten about by the mainstream. I can’t get into that here – as a start I can refer readers to Angela’s review of a recent book about these “orange wines”. These weren’t all orange, by the way – many were, with different degrees of hue; some made from redder-skinned varieties (like semillon gris and pinot gris, as opposed to black-skinned varieties) were distinctly red-orange; some were pleasingly gold, others looked pretty standard pale-straw.

Beginners to this subject must first remind themselves that nearly all grapes have colourless juice (pale yellow-green, really); the colour in red wines comes from skin contact. The pale straw colour in standard white wines (including in sparkling wines from pinot noir) comes from the skins being more-or-less rapidly whisked away from the fermenting juice: this is the nearly universal way that modern white wines are made. Rosés are either blends of red and white wines or, preferably, made from leaving the blacks skins in contact with the juice for just a short period.

There is a possibly vexed relationship between skin-contact wines and what we tend to call “natural” wines and generally avant-gardish (or deeply traditional, if you prefer!) wines. There’s a frequent overlap, anyway. One of the commonest shared characteristics of “natural” wines is their low alcohol levels. Most of the wines here were below 12% alcohol – often well below, going down to 10% (as per the label); this nicely illustrates that skin-contact is a technique used primarily by winemakers with a particular aesthetico-philosophic approach, if I can call it that. But a few were as high as 14%.

What else did all (or most) of these wines have in common? A marked avoidance of fruitiness, particularly the ones that were more obviously oxidative – the typical characters that we tend to associate with different varieties were at the very least muted. There was plenty of acidity (contributing vitally to the freshness) – but that is associated with early-picking, and there was usually some degree of tannic grip, resulting from the maceration on the skins (where much of a grape’s tannin is to be found). Most were perceptibly dry.

Big acid, tannin, dryness, lack of fruitiness – the inevitable result of this balance was an austerity, and occasionally even a dour charmlessness. Fram Grenache Gris 2017 was one such, I thought, while Craven Pinot Gris was rather austerely structured but its flavourfulness made it an elegant pleasure rather than hard work.

Balance of all the elements is everything, of course, which makes generalisations difficult. I found some of the low-alcohol wines tending to the insipid, even if they weren’t exactly “green”: the otherwise lovely Craven Clairette Blanche 2017, Testalonga El Bandito Skin 2017 and Baby Bandito Stay Brave 2017, though the fresh light, flavourful charm of El Bandito Sweet Cheeks 2017 Muscat  d’Alexandrie made it more acceptable at 10% alcohol – if not exactly genuinely vinous. Others also compensated somehow for the lack of ripe vinosity: Intellego Elementis 2016, a chenin at around 10.5% alcohol was one of the general favourites at the table.

And some of the higher-alcohol wines seemed – but probably this was just the context – a little too powerful: Richard Hilton The Ancient Viognier 2017, perhaps, though I really enjoyed the wine; Springfontein Dark Side of the Moon 2015 and Dragonridge Cygnus 2015, which I enjoyed less (though I have had the latter before, when I appreciated it more).

Other favourites of mine (all 2017s unless otherwise noted) were Mother Rock Liquid Skin, Elemental Bob Retro Chenin Blanc and My Cosmic Hand White (both 2016), Blackwater Blanc, Maanschijn’s Easy Tiger and Spin Cycle, Thorne and Daughters Tin Soldier, Raised by Wolves Rooi Groen Semillon La Colline 2016, Force Majeure Celeste, Bosman Fides.

Are these skin contact wines going to develop? I doubt it; most of them (especially the lightest ones) seem designed for early, refreshing drinking. The purpose of ageing wine is for the primary/secondary fruit to develop complexity. These wines often had a sort of complexity from the process, but most of them didn’t have much in the way of fruit to develop. Drink now, then – but order a bottle only if you know you like the stuff. If fruit flavourfulness and generosity and charm are what you want, you’re going to have to develop a taste for these wines (worth doing if you like variousness in your wine-drinking). Whatever their producers like to think, these are generally not easy wines; not for the uninitiated.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

12 COMMENTS

  1. most of the wines mentioned are new to me and regrettably are priced such that they are likely to remain mysterious. Even so, acknowledging that it’s not for everyone, I found the FRAM gren.gris to be the opposite of charmless & dour. Cheeky, lively, fresh, unconventional – I could go for a cupfull right now…

  2. This must have been a fascinating tasting. With ‘natural winemaking’ often dovetailing with the making of orange wines, some of these wines end up being both light and unstable (to various degrees). These are surely wines that need to be enjoyed in its youth and will probably self-destruct with enough time in the bottle.

    However, others are so stable by the time they are bottled (bone dry, healthy fruit, oxidatively handled, matured in old oak for an extended period, low in pH, sans disjointing additives, etc.) that they must surely make for very interesting tipples way down the line. Plenty white wines from here and elsewhere that was harvested at modest ripeness levels have surprised with their longevity. Some of them might retain their energy, while gaining spice, honey or savoury characteristics. Or perhaps some lurking fruit might even emerge from the shadows to have their moment on the stage? I think there is much that we still need to discover about these wines…

  3. Thanks for both of these useful comments. Re the Fram: I do wonder if bottle variation is not more common amongst wines like these – especially when sulphuring is low. Fair speculation, Kwisp, except I’d instance again the low (or occasionally no) sulphuring regimes, however apparently stable the wines might be. But undoubtedly, yes – much for us all (including winemakers) to discover.

    • I must agree regarding the sulphuring regimes of many of our best recent wave of winemakers, Tim. One can understand that customers who buy the more ‘naturally’ made wines (especially customers from markets abroad) may demand low sulphur wines – and that’s all good and well for wines made for early consumption. But I have real concerns about the low sulphur that many of the more serious wines get. Of course some wines can go the distance without much added sulphur, but that really is a game of Russian Roulette and unfortunately casualties are already appearing…

  4. o yes spitty i am. i can picture u at a wine show , swirling the wine glass then schnauz all the way into the glass , head held at an angle , swirl , sniff , putting up a good show, oooh then all those gurgling sounds. then u tell the winemaker that u believe there is some pinotage in his cab or american oak in his chard. acting all clever. maybe even a notebook the winemakers hate chatting to the type , they try and get away as soon as they spot the sort. if u do trap them they will chat with u and act nice , but they would rather talk to the pretty girls at the show or the real people that count , the restaurateurs or wine buyers. even at meet the winemaker evenings trust me they hate the sort , after the show they all sit and gossip about the characters

  5. David – Yes, quite true. I haven’t had one as old as that but I have had some of those older El Banditos which did develop very well for at least some years. Certainly the one that was at least a year on the skins! I wouldn’t want to generalise too much from those – but I admit that all generalisations about these wines are difficult now. Not sure about the Rioja comparison either – the best of those highly oxidative Lopez Heredia whites spend 5-10 years in barrel even before they go into bottle and can easily go 50 years. I’ll hold thumbs for El Bandito but I won’t be here to try it!
    And the tasting was a sighted one – the point of it was educative, not competitive; and many of the wines were pretty new to us so there wasn’t much room for prejudice.

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